Penn Vet Working Dog Center Collaborating on Ovarian Cancer Detection Study

In a unique, interdisciplinary collaboration, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center, The School of Arts and Science's Department of Physics and Astronomy, Penn Medicine’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology and the Monell Chemical Senses Center have joined together to study ovarian cancer detection by dogs and e-sensors. A grant of $80,000 from Kaleidoscope of Hope Ovarian Cancer Foundation has been awarded to fund this collaborative project, which will investigate using canine olfaction, along with chemical and nanotechnology analysis, to detect early stage ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the U.S. If diagnosed early, ovarian cancer has a five-year survival rate of over 90 percent. However, an effective screening strategy does not currently exist for its detection. Because ovarian cancer symptoms can be easily mistaken for other issues – constipation, weight gain, bloating, or more frequent urination – more than 60 percent of patients are diagnosed only after the disease has spread to their lymph nodes or other distant sites in the body, when treatment is much less likely to produce a cure compared to when the disease is detected early. Any advance that can accurately detect ovarian cancer in its early stage can have a great impact on overall survival.

Currently, physicians rely on their senses of sight, sound and touch when making a diagnosis for ovarian cancer. Through the research being conducted by Penn and Monell, the sense of smell will now play an integral role in diagnostics.

It has been found that volatile organic compounds (VOC) or odorants are altered in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer, even before the cancer can be detected by current methods. Research has shown that trained detection dogs and electronic devices can detect minute quantities of odorants. Tissue and blood samples from healthy patients and from ovarian cancer patients will be collected by Penn Medicine’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology to be shared with the Working Dog Center for training and analysis.

“These odorants remain a relatively untapped source for cancer detection information,” said Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, Director of the Working Dog Center and Associate Professor of Critical Care at Penn Vet. “By utilizing the acute sense of smell in detection dogs in conjunction with chemical and nanotechnology methods, we hope to develop a new system of screening for ovarian cancer using analysis of odorants to facilitate early detection and help decrease future cancer deaths.”

“Prior to the advent of modern quantitative clinical testing, physicians used olfaction to help with disease diagnosis. In this research, we are reaching back to move forward by using sensitive biological and analytical sensors to detect ovarian cancer’s odorous signature,” said George Preti, PhD, an analytical chemist at the Monell Center and Adjunct Professor in Penn Medicine’s Department of Dermatology, who is principal investigator on the grant.

The collaborative research will employ canine olfaction and other analytical tools to detect ovarian cancer’s distinct odorant signature. The initial study will evaluate and compare the ability of canine and other sensors to detect the total odorant signatures that distinguish disease from healthy samples. Future studies will determine the most suitable tissue substrate for evaluation and will measure odor differences among various tumor grades.